Monthly Archives: April 2013

Jesus Weekend: Demo

Demo

CD, self-released, 2013

Osaka lo-fi trio Jesus Weekend have been getting a lot of attention in indie circles lately, partly thanks to their association with buzzy web label Ano(t)racks and their appearance on a split cassette with Miila and The Geeks. This four-song demo CD/R suggests a lot of potential if and when they decide what kind of band they really are. Most of the EP is characterised by harsh yet melodic, droning synth, with opening track Prisoner of Lies layering the vocals 4AD-style over the simple four-note melody, while the instrumental Sunshine Lake has a more subtly nuanced melody and closing track Animal Suicides has the faintly menacing edge of an 80s John Carpenter soundtrack.

The odd one out is Puberty Bell, also featured on the Miila and The Geeks split, and here Jesus Weekend sound like a completely different band. It shambles along like The Raincoats, vocalist Seira starting out cooing the lyrics in that childlike, over-precisely enunciated way that many Japanese indiepop bands have, before the melody shifts into a more bluesy register and she reveals a hidden side to herself that resembles a sort of teenage Japanese Tanya Donelly. The shift to the more sexually mature sounding, world weary blues melody from the sweet and girly intro is a short step but also an unexpected one, which crosses an invisible line, sending a little thrill with it, a subliminal sensation of transgression.

It’s hard to judge from this demo EP what kind of band Jesus Weekend are or will become, and which direction they go from here is anyone’s guess. Their Soundcloud page also has stuff ranging from what you could almost call industrial to material skirting the fringes of krautrock, but at the very least, this collection demonstrates that the band have options.

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Interview: Extruders

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed minimalist psychedelic postpunk trio the Extruders, whose new album, Colors, is looking like a shoo-in for album of the year in Japan this year. It was a really interesting interview, and was way too long for the short space allotted to the feature in The Japan Times, so I thought I’d post the full interview transcript here.

One of the points that intrigued me was the claim that a lot of people in Japan think the Extruders don’t seem like a Japanese band. Partly that’s down to their sound, and they do seem to like a certain sort of bluesy chord progression that is rare in Japanese music but quite common in UK/US rock, but I think it’s also concealing something else. Maybe the people who say they’re “not Japanese type” don’t really understand what they mean either, but I think part of the message is really saying they’re not “scene”. In that sense, it’s a compliment on their originality, but perhaps also containing a bit of unease or fear. It’s like when someone comes up to you at work and says, “That’s an interesting tie” — it’s almost a warning that you’re standing out too much. Like I said, I don’t think these people realise that’s what they’re saying: it’s just an unconscious reaction to the fact that the Extruders really are something unique in the Japanese music scene.

Anyway, I’ll leave the rest to the band themselves to explain and just add once more that Colors is a brilliant, brilliant album, and you should get it right away. The members are Ryo Okada (guitar), Yohei Toriyama (bass/vocals), and Toru Iwashina (drums).

Can you start off by taking us through how the band started and developed?

RYO: We originally formed in 2003 with five members, then in 2005 two of the members quit and that’s when the three of us started with this more minimal style.

YOHEI: Then in 2006 we played in the USA, Atlanta, in 2007 we released our first mini-album, Neuter, and then in 2008 our first full album, Hustle & Bustle.

RYO: After that, we needed new blood, so to speak, and so we stopped the band, changed the name, and became Toroid.

YOHEI: It was more freeform, more like noise music, our shows were sort of like a “happening”. Then in 2011, after the earthquake, we played a charity show as the Extruders for the first time in a few years.

RYO: At that time, we thought the structure of the Extruders was suitable for expressing ourselves.

YOHEI: You could say that we “rediscovered rock”.

RYO: We quit playing “ex-Extruders” — “ex-Extruders”, it sounds strange to say it like that! — we mostly threw away our back catalogue.

So was Toroid the same three members?

YOHEI: Yeah, basically the same setup.

RYO: Sometimes we invited noise musicians to play together with us because we wanted something new.

There’s a big difference between the short, postpunk-ish songs on Neuter and the much more expansive, almost psychedelic tracks on Colors…

YOHEI: Before, we played very short songs. We removed anything unnecessary, anything superfluous, and this was my way of expressing myself. We’d cut out refrains or anything we didn’t need. Now, we’re more relaxed, we can express ourselves more freely, so we’re no longer restraining ourselves.

RYO: We found the core of what we’re doing, which I think is part of the reason for the change.

YOHEI: Yeah, we found a core to our music that we’re comfortable with, so we don’t have to restrain ourselves.

RYO: It became more instinctive. Before,we had rules about “what the Extruders is”. With Toroid, we took apart those rules, and when we came back as the Extruders again, we found ourselves more instinctive.

Extruders is a strangely specific band name. How did you end up called that?

RYO: You say the word “strange” and we hear that a lot, but we don’t think we’re strange. People sometimes write about us and say we’re not really a Japanese type band.

YOHEI: I’m not a music geek and I don’t listen to a lot of foreign music. There’s no band where we can say all of us are influenced by. It’s very important to me that I sing the lyrics in Japanese.

RYO: In today’s globalised world, being Japanese is the most global thing we can do.

YOHEI: Rock is basically an imported thing, so a rock band is ultimately an imitation of something external. Rather than being an imitation, we want to take various influences from overseas and interpret them in our own way. This is what feels natural.

RYO: Rock’n’roll has been with us since the ’50s, half a century, and Japanese rock should have its own history.

YOHEI: We’re not working in terms of something like America and Japan. For me, New York and, for example, Kyushu, are the same.

In a way, it sounds like there are two things going on there. On the one hand, you’re saying it’s important to be Japanese, but on the other, you’re saying you don’t want to make distinctions.

YOHEI: I like to think of our art and our place as different concepts. We don’t really have a “home” in the sense of being from a specific place. Japanese or global is not something tied down to geographical location so much as a framework through which we can work. We’ve been thinking about this a lot because people around us often say we’re not like a Japanese band.

That’s interesting, although I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t answer my question of why the name Extruders!

YOHEI: (Laughs) I forgot! Actually, it doesn’t mean anything. I used to have a part-time job fixing machines and I was working on a machine called an extruder, so we took it from that.

So going back to the change in style since the first album, I think the drums are one area where it’s really changed, going from something very tight and minimal, to something much more slippery, almost jazz style.

TORU: With the drums, it’s similar to what they said about the structure of the songs. In the older Extruders, I was trying to be as tight as possible, but with Toroid, we re-evaluated the drums. I took apart my style to the point where really I couldn’t drum anymore and had to figure it all out again. At this time, I rediscovered my love of soul music and the sexiness and eroticism that goes with it — that was the sound I was hearing in my head. I started to see drumming as a big, white canvas and I’d splatter paint over it.

Sort of like “bukkake drumming”!

TORU: (Laughs) That’s a good name! So since re-forming the Extruders, I haven’t seen myself as a timekeeper or rhythm person. To go back the the paint metaphor, now I only paint where it’s needed and only in the amount that’s needed.

YOHEI: I just want to say that the most important aspect of the sound is that we’ve now made our own studio. We took an old, stone warehouse and turned it into a studio, which has helped us find time to shape our sound.

RYO: Before, we had to rent space for maybe three hours at a time, but now, we can work on a song, talk about it, have dinner, or even spend the night at the studio.

You seem to have quite well developed opinions about your music compared to a lot of bands I meet. Do you talk like this a lot together?

YOHEI: Yeah, a lot. We spend so much time discussing our songs — to the point where it’s a bit creepy really. Not just music: lovers, things like that.

RYO: We only get out what we put in, so if we don’t spend time together, it won’t be as good. Being friends is the most important thing.

It sounds a bit different from the rather formal-sounding “band meetings” that lots of groups in Tokyo seem to have.

TORU: We get along, spend lots of time together, so if we set up a formal band meeting, it wouldn’t work, because we always hang out together anyway. It’s more natural to talk normally.

So your last release before Colors was a live album recorded at a Buddhist Temple. None of you are religious in any way, so how did that come about?

RYO: I knew someone at the temple and we were talking about society, the world, life in general, truth, that sort of thing. We shared the same opinions about a lot of things and he mentioned that they were having a ceremony at the temple for Saraswati or Benzaiten, as she’s known in Japan, the goddess of arts. My friend said that if we have those kinds of views, we should perform at the ceremony.

With the video projection you use onstage and the way you bring all your own gear to every show, it often seems like you’re bringing your own little world with you and recreating it on each stage. At the temple show, you didn’t use that, but there seemed to be something in the environment that suited your “world” anyway.

YOHEI: The video thing isn’t something we do for “art” so much as a logistical thing. The temple was our first show in a while so not everything was ready. After that we were playing live venues, and the video wasn’t “art” exactly, just that we were bringing our own gear anyway, so we might as well bring our own lighting arrangement too.

RYO: We didn’t think about it so much. It just wouldn’t have been appropriate to use a projector in that environment.

YOHEI: Before the gig, we were quite intimidated: a lowly rock band performing in front of a god. After, we found we could do it and that was the turning point for us, where we felt comfortable with ourselves as a band.

In Buddhist architecture and gardens, the spaces between objects often seems just as important as the objects themselves, and in your music, as Toru said with his drumming, it often seems like the spaces between sounds are just as important as the sounds themselves. I think that’s why the temple seemed to fit so well.

YOHEI: We don’t do it on purpose, it’s not something we’re conscious of It’s open to interpretation though. One person might feel one way, which is fine, and another might feel differently, which is OK. With the video projection, for us it’s better than lights; it just feels better. The interpretation is up to the audience.

I’m starting to think though, that the idea of space — the physical space to record in, the space in time the studio allows you, the cultural space you exist in, and the space that exists inside the music — that this idea is the key to the story here.

YOHEI: The thing about space, I notice that now, after you’ve said it to me. I’m not aware of it while we’re doing it, but yeah, maybe that’s it.

RYO: It’s as simple as how you feel more comfortable in your own room than in someone else’s room. It’s our own space that we’ve created ourselves, so we feel more comfortable.

YOHEI: It’s important to have a daily space, so we made a studio that looks cool to us, it feels comfortable, and that translates into our live performances. It creates a natural flow between practice and playing shows, not segregated.

RYO: This is very different from our usual interviews! People usually ask us questions about “What music do you like?” or “What are your influences?”

I usually ask those questions when I’m interviewing other bands, but it never seemed to come up this time!

YOHEI: I do want to say that very important influences for us were Ryo Watanabe, who did the mixing, and Yui Kimijima, the recording engineer. Without them, we couldn’t have made Colors. But we’re influenced by everything around us.

(At this point, One Direction come on in the background for the dozenth time in the evening.)

RYO: If I was interviewing One Direction, I’d want to ask, “You’re called One Direction, but which direction? Up, down, left, right?”

Maybe the direction is “Straight into the hearts of our fans!”

YOHEI: In that case, we’re the same! Honestly though, the thing we need most is sales! That will allow us to concentrate properly on our music. Oh, and I want to mention about the artwork by Motoko Otsuki. That’s very important.

RYO: We spoke with her and she understood us, so she allowed us to use her art.

YOHEI: Usually, music is invisible. Album art is usually thought and planned out. In this case, we were introduced to the artist by our engineer, who let us use a painting she’d already done, but afterwards, people will decide about it.

RYO: She sent us lots of paintings and we chose one.

YOHEI: But the important thing is that the person came first, and understood what we were about. It comes from a series called “Party”.

RYO: I want people to interpret the painting’s meaning for themselves.

YOHEI: It’s like our music in that way.

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Strange Boutique (March 2013)

In my most recent Japan Times column I wrote about the sempai-kohai dynamic (i.e. the seniority-based hierarchy) in Japanese indie music. It’s a tricky area because it’s something that runs all through Japanese society to varying degrees, but it varies in strength and manifestation from one arena to another, and even from one part of the music scene to another.

It also leaves it open for smart alecs to butt in and make wise-sounding remarks to the effect that hierarchies are present in all societies, not just Japanese, and hey, don’t Western bands do just the same? Well in answer to that, they don’t, or at least not in this way. Bands in Europe or America suck up to people they think are famous or might be useful to them, but that’s not the same as the pure seniority-based hierarchy you see in Japan. Whether it’s a bad thing or not is harder to say.

The first thing to say is that it runs deepest and strongest in university band circles. Last year, some friends of mine from France and I organised a small party called Kill Your Sempai with some bands, DJs and silly, situationist art. One of the audience there couldn’t understand the event title: “‘Kill Your Sempai”? Why would I want to kill my sempai? I like my sempai!” Now no one’s stupid enough to think that we really did want people to go on a murder spree, so it’s clear that it was the general sentiment against the idea of the sempai that he couldn’t get his head around. And that is the question in a way: why be against this idea?

The guys from DYGL I spoke to agreed that people tend to respect older musicians regardless of talent, but they seemed to have a good relationship with their own sempais. Kyu-shoku are DYGL’s seniors and they’re a cool band, decent people, who don’t lord it over others and DYGL have never felt external pressure to the extent of having to become more like a hardcore band themselves (although certainly some other bands have). It’s weird though. At the band circle event that I was partly reporting from, Kyu-shoku played a terrific set to a packed crowd of adoring juniors, and yet I’ve seen Kyu-shoku numerous times — I even booked them to play my birthday party at the same studio venue last year — and they’re a perennial opening act in the “real” live scene, who bring a handful of friends but by no means pack out venues, so where were all these adoring fans on all those occasions? Are these people really fans, or are they just club members having fun in front of the band in a way that they’d have fun in front of any band?

Given how few of these music circle members seem to transfer out into the local live scene proper, I’m going to stick my neck out here and say most of the people supporting these college bands aren’t really into them or indeed music at all really. They maybe have a few albums and like the idea of alternative music, but they have no real intention of carrying their interest or support past the strictly-defined play area of the university arena — certainly not taking it past graduation.

The good thing about that is that it gives college bands a warm, supportive environment and the illusion of making progress at an early stage of their development where the cold, indifferent reality of the live scene proper would probably kill most of them at birth. The negative side is that too many bands seem to take the values of the band circle environment with them when they go out into the scene. They look for new sempai, latch onto certain bands, imitate them, suck up to them at after-parties, listen meekly to the advice of their elders even when these elders are bringing in similar or even smaller audiences than them. And some older bands aren’t as laid back as Kyu-shoku seem to be with their kohai and lord it over younger bands.

Some labels are a bit like this too. I mentioned in the article that sometimes labels seem to neglect young bands at the expense of older, more established acts. I didn’t name names there, but I think you can kind of see it with someone like Second Royal, or maybe Tokyo’s Niw! Records, where there does seem to be a distinct pecking order among the artists and both of which feel similar to university band circles in a way, with their eclectic lineups and socially rather than business-oriented networks. Now they’re both good labels, and anyway, any label with a large enough roster is going to have to prioritise sometimes when there’s only one or two guys running the thing, and in indie labels where resources are sometimes limited, that might be even more the case, but labels should be doing this intelligently by reading the right time to capitalise on popularity across a number of arenas (online and international as well as more traditional methods) and labels should be wary that they’re not allowing “the way things are done” to let chances slip away from artists under their care.

I spoke to Koichi Makigami from Hikashu to get a longer-term perspective and he seemed fairly dismissive of the whole idea in the sense that he recognised its existence but seemed to see it as an unnecessary annoyance and a distraction from the music. He noted that there were in the past always some people who expected to be spoken to in the correct, respectful way, but seemed to think that he’d never really lost out as a result of that scenario. Other people I chatted to from that same 70s and 80s generation said that you couldn’t really have a strict sempai-kohai thing going on because the scene was too small then to accommodate it. There just weren’t enough bands, so if you were good, you were in demand regardless of your age.

Of course this is quite a narrow focus on an area of arty, largely middle-class music. In more working class genres and other places where the influence of the yakuza is strong, for example visual-kei, hardcore punk and weird cults like Johnny & Associates, the sempai-kohai dynamic is also strong, but I think for different reasons. I also think that AKB48’s emphasis on fan voting to determine the group’s hierarchy (the girls are all signed to different talent agencies, so there’s less of an internal hierarchy in the traditional sense) does something interesting to the structure, but that’s another article. Back in the more rarefied world of alternative rock, I wonder if the way that rock music has become acceptable in mainstream society, the way it can now be a thoroughly respectable part of any student’s extracurricular activity, might also have codified some of the more traditional social dynamics into what had been by its very nature an act of rebellion.

As you can see, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. There are lots of good things about the university band circle environment, and I wouldn’t want to lose that if the sempai-kohai structure was torn down. But then again, I would hope that common decency would be able to step in in its place.

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Jesse Ruins: Laura is Fading

Laura is Fading has all the elements you’d expect to find in a Jesse Ruins song, including the insistent beat, the indistinct, repetitive vocals and the shrill, whistling synth that calls round like an old friend as the song moves towards closure. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — in fact it’s probably why it’s the single — and it’s certainly not to say that there’s nothing interesting about the song and production. The heavily compressed drums that come in just after the one minute mark give it a taut, claustrophobic energy that’s curiously at odds with the sweeping, expansive synth backdrop, and all in all it bodes well for the forthcoming album.

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